Mark Payton knows the question is coming like a 3-0 fastball right down the middle. He knows because the question has been coming pretty much since his first Little League game. So like any good fastball hitter, the Aviators' outfielder digs in and meets it head-on.
"I've obviously always been the shortest guy out there," says Payton, who is officially listed at 5-foot-8 but cops to being 5-foot-6. "And growing up, a lot of times I played up [a level], so I was the youngest guy, too. So always being around those guys who were bigger and stronger than me, I had to do something to compete with them. Learning how to do that at a young age has helped me get to this point."
Where is this point, you ask? Well, for starters, the 27-year-old from Orland Park, Illinois, is coming down the home stretch of his sixth season in professional baseball, the last four of which have been at least partially spent in Triple A. The first three of those Triple-A stints - all at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the top affiliate for the New York Yankees, who drafted Payton in the seventh round in 2014 - produced solid results: In 144 games, he posted a .269 average with a combined 12 home runs, 21 doubles, 47 RBI and 69 runs.
Then came this season, Payton's first in the Oakland A's system after the organization selected him in December's Triple-A Rule 5 Draft. Optioned to Las Vegas after spring training as more or less a guy to fill out an Aviators roster loaded with multiple highly touted prospects, Payton not only has emerged as one of his team's most productive and clutch hitters, he's enjoyed the best summer of his career - by a mile.
After walking twice and scoring a run in the Aviators' 10-5 victory over the Oklahoma City Dodgers on Saturday at Las Vegas Ballpark, Payton is batting .334 with 21 homers, 23 doubles, 73 RBI and 64 runs scored in 90 games. In other words, Payton has amassed nine more homers, two more doubles and 26 more RBI (and scored just five fewer runs) in 90 games with Las Vegas than he did in his 144 games with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
To put the left-handed hitter's 2019 stats in even greater perspective, consider that prior to this season, he had never hit more than seven homers, had more than 47 RBI or batted higher than .309 in any season in his entire pro career.
Indeed, if that career were a script for a suspense movie, this season would undoubtedly be the point where moviegoers would jump out of their seats in shock.
"I knew there was some more left in the tank than I showed the last couple of years," Payton says when asked if he's surprised himself this season. "And I know there's still more room to grow."
Payton was born with baseball in his blood. His father, David, played third base and the corner outfield positions in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization for several years. After his career ended, David Payton returned home, where he worked in the family business by day and gave hitting lessons to local ballplayers at night.
A young Mark Payton frequently tagged along with his dad to the batting cage, and after the big boys took their hacks, the tyke would jump in the cage "with my little bat and take some swings." As time went on, Payton's hitting sessions with his father got a bit more serious, with the master schooling the pupil on two vital hitting principles: When in the batter's box, keep things as simple as possible, and always remember that small movements equal big results.
"For me, it's always been that way," Payton says. "I'm a smaller guy, so I can't have a lot of movement in the box or try to do too much. I just try to stay [still] and be direct to the ball."
Payton actually was on his way to an offseason workout on December 12 - just five days after his 27th birthday - when he received word that the A's had acquired him. Initially shocked that he was no longer a Yankee, Payton eventually looked at the change through a more positive lens. "It brought a new sense of urgency to my offseason workouts, knowing there was somebody out there who wanted to take a chance on me and saw something they liked," he says. "So I saw it as a good opportunity."
Needless to say, he's taken full advantage of that opportunity. Playing on the best hitting team in the Pacific Coast League, Payton ranks second in batting average, is tied for third in homers, and ranks fourth in RBI and sixth in runs, hits (96), doubles (23), triples (3) and total bases (188). What's more, he's currently tied for sixth in the entire league in batting average, and ranks third in both OPS (1.057) and slugging percentage (.655). Additionally, Payton has three multi-homer games (all last month), four different hitting streaks of at least seven games, and he's the only Aviator who's twice been named PCL Player of the Week.
Not bad for a guy whose current manager once joked that he looks more like a salesman than a professional ballplayer.
"You look at him and he's not an imposing figure in the batter's box," says Las Vegas manager Fran Riordan. "But he generates so much power with his lower half, and he gets the most out of his body. And he's been so consistent. His offensive numbers are just impressive across the board. Then you look at the way he plays defense - he can play all three outfield positions and is really good at all three. Plus, he runs the bases really well and really smart."
Payton is quick to praise two individuals for his sensational season to date: his father and Aviators hitting coach Eric Martins. "Both guys deserve credit," he says. "There have been ups and downs this season, as there usually are, but the downs haven't been as long as they have been in the past, because E-Mart's gotten me out of slumps very quickly. And I talk to my dad a couple of times a week, and if he sees something, I'll come out to the field the next day and work on it."
With a month to go in the season and the Aviators in the thick of the playoff hunt - they trail El Paso by just one game following Saturday's victory - Payton says he's focused just as much (if not more) on his team's success as his own. During his time with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Payton was part of one team that won the Triple-A title and two others that competed for the International League championship. And he sees the same kind of potential with his new team.
"Right now, it's about fighting for a playoff spot and trying to move in front of El Paso," Payton says. "Obviously in minor league baseball, there's a very individualized aspect to it, but when you're focused on winning, the [individual] results tend to take care of themselves. And creating a culture where winning means something in the minor leagues, it definitely helps you when you get to the big leagues."
Speaking of the big leagues, while the A's likely didn't view Payton as an immediate major-league contributor when they plucked him from the Yankees last winter, he's no doubt gotten the organization's attention with his tremendous performance this season. Whether that means Payton will finally get his first big-league opportunity remains to be seen, but he's got several guys pulling for him in the Aviators' clubhouse, including his manager.
"Mark is just an overall really, really good baseball player," Riordan says. "He's one of these guys who hasn't had an opportunity to play at the major-league level who you're pulling for to get that chance because he's shown that he belongs."
Another thing Payton has shown, just as two of his idols - diminutive infielders Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve - did before him? In baseball, it's now how tall you are, but how talented are. "There's no reason little guys can't play this game," Payton says. "There's room for everybody in this sport."
'SOUP' DOES IT AGAIN: One night after producing three key hits and four RBI in the Aviators' 10-8, walk-off victory over Oklahoma City, Eric Campbell came up big again Saturday. Elevated to the leadoff spot, the veteran infielder known as "Soup" bashed a two-run homer in the second inning and finished 3-for-5 with two runs and four RBI to pace Las Vegas to another critical victory.
The first four batters in the Aviators' lineup - Campbell, Dustin Fowler, Sheldon Neuse and Seth Brown - combined to go 8-for-15 with three homers, eight RBI and six runs scored against Oklahoma City. As impressive as the offense was, Las Vegas ace Paul Blackburn was the star of the show, delivering yet another gem on the mound. The right-hander yielded three runs (all within the first three innings) on six hits over six innings, earning his team-leading ninth win of the season.
The victory, coupled with El Paso's 5-3 loss in Memphis, moved Las Vegas back to within a game of first place.
GAME NOTES: Neuse (2-for-3, solo HR, two runs, two walks) extended his hitting streak to 11 games. During his streak, the Aviators' infielder is 21-for-48 (.438) with three doubles, three homers, 10 RBI and 12 runs. … Brown launched his team-leading 29th homer - a two-run blast - in the fifth inning. He's now tied for second in the PCL in home runs, just one behind Reno's Kevin Cron. … Aviators infielder Trace Loehr, who hit a walk-off, three-run homer Friday in the first Triple-A at-bat of his career, started at shortstop Saturday and went 1-for-3 with a walk and run scored. … Blackburn recorded just two strikeouts Saturday, but he didn't walk a batter. That's notable because over the past week, Aviators starting pitchers have compiled an astounding 24-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
TRANSACTION ACTION: The A's made several roster moves Saturday, including activating Stephen Piscotty from the injured list, claiming catcher Dustin Garneau off waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers and optioning catcher Beau Taylor back to Las Vegas. Also, the A's released pitcher Andrew Triggs and designated Ryan Dull for assignment. In 30 relief appearances for Las Vegas, Dull went 1-4 with a 5.45 ERA and four saves.
In other roster news, Franklin Barreto - who was optioned from Oakland to Las Vegas on Friday - is expected to join the Aviators on Sunday and assume the roster spot of Loehr, who likely will return to Class-A Stockton.
ON DECK: The Aviators and Dodgers square off in the third game of their four-game series at 7:05 p.m. Sunday at Las Vegas Ballpark. Daniel Mengden (4-2, 3.47 ERA) is scheduled to make his first start since being optioned from Oakland to Las Vegas this week. Mengden is slated oppose Oklahoma City right-hander Logan Bawcom (0-1, 4.00).
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.